A video released by the Indian Air Force (IAF) ahead of its 91st Air Force Day captured the scramble process from the Operational Readiness Platform (ORP) in the face of incoming aerial threats.
Nearly 42 years ago, on December 14, 1971, a young Flying Officer was on ORP duty when the air defense warning system informed him to “Scramble, Scramble!” against invading enemy aircraft from West Pakistan.
26-year-old Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, affably called ‘Brother’ by his fellow officers, had two minutes to take off from the Srinagar airfield in Jammu and Kashmir in his Gnat aircraft.
When his fighter jet got airborne, the enemy bombing raid was already in progress, with four aircraft dropping their bombs over the Srinagar airfield.
Until the commencement of hostilities with Pakistan in December 1971, no air defense aircraft were based at Srinagar during peacetime, in compliance with an international agreement dating back to 1948.
First Opportunity To Engage In Air Combat
Sekhon was in Srinagar as part of an air defense detachment of four Gnat fighters from the 18th Squadron, also called the Flying Bullets.
As a result, Flying Officer Sekhon was “unfamiliar with the landscape and was unaccustomed to the altitude of Srinagar, particularly with the terrible cold and piercing winds of the Kashmir winter.”
Filled with the ‘josh’ and enthusiasm that only youth can afford, the biggest worry of the officer was that the 1971 war would be over even before he could down a Pakistani aircraft. And destiny will provide him a chance soon enough.
The Kashmir valley had no radar coverage, but then IAF chief Air Chief Marshal PC Lal instituted several measures to improve early warning of incoming strike aircraft through a layered network of radars and Mobile Observation Posts (MOPs) on peaks along the Pir Panjal range — a few soldiers, sometimes with binoculars.
Turning A Breeze Into A Storm
The Sabres came over early in the morning, cloaked by winter fog, so even the MOPs couldn’t always spot them.
“Therefore, the only way for air defense aircraft like the Gnats to intercept incoming strike aircraft was if they had at least five or six minutes of warning that would allow them to scramble in two to three minutes and then allow the air defense radar to carry out an intercept before the strike hits the target.
No such window was available on December 14, the day Sekhon was part of a two-aircraft air defense mission on readiness at Srinagar, IAF veteran and military historian Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam wrote in an article.
A six-aircraft Sabre formation from the Pakistan Air Force’s 26th Squadron led by their squadron commander, Wing Commander S A Changezi, entered the Indian air space to destroy the Srinagar airfield and cripple the IAF.
While four aircraft were to execute the airfield attack and two remained at high altitudes to provide air defense cover, the Sabres imagined the operation would go down with the ease they experienced a few times earlier
Epitome Of Courage: Taking-Off To Face Death
Flying Officer Sekhon was number 2 on the ORP duty. He could not take off immediately due to dust clouds created by another aircraft that had just taken off.
“By the time the runway was ready for takeoff, six enemy planes were overhead, and the airfield was being strafed. Despite the dangers of attempting to take off during an attack and the odds stacked against him, Flying Officer Sekhon took off and engaged two of the attacking Sabres immediately,” the Ministry of Defense citation read.
“Sekhon is the very epitome of the word courage. Courage does not necessarily mean killing a significant number of aircraft. Courage does not necessarily mean killing many enemies or downing x or y number of aircraft.
“Courage is taking off for an ORP knowing that the enemy numbers are stacked against you, and you may never get back alive,” Man Aman Singh Chinna, senior journalist, and author of the book “Seven Heroes of 1971: Stories of Courage and Sacrifice,” told the EurAsian Times.
He added: “Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon did his duty and then some more. That is why he is a legend in IAF and military aviation worldwide.”
Facing Odds, Enemy’s Praise
The adversary also praised his courage in the face of the odds. Flight Lieutenant Salim Baig was part of the six-aircraft Sabre formation that faced fierce resistance from Flying Officer Sekhon.
Baig, number 5 in the mission, described the attack: “The target (Srinagar runway) was easily sighted to the left during pull up to the bombing height of 5000 feet above the ground.
“Everyone in the formation acknowledged having visual contact with the runway, and soon I saw the leader’s Sabre roll into a nose-down steep turn to align up his aircraft with runway 31.”
Aircraft numbers 2, 3, and 4 dived for the bombing run, and 5 and 6 provided the air cover. Leader and No.2 had already dropped their bombs on the target and had pulled out of the ensuing dive at about 1000 feet above ground.
“Before we could complete our positioning turns, I heard the leader telling No.2 to immediately ‘Break’ to the left because there was an enemy Gnat aircraft firing at him,” Baig said.
While numbers 2 and 3 pulled out of the bombing dive to fight the Gnat, the number 4 aircraft, having lost visual contact with other formation members, left the battle area.
As Sekhon took off, the two Sabres, which had already dropped their bombs, were directly ahead of him — and the other two were directly behind. Sekhon tore after the first Sabre pair, who re-formed after their bombing runs. The Sabre leader, it was later discovered, was their squadron commander.
As Sekhon pursued the first two Sabres, the Number 3 Sabre behind Sekhon was firing incessantly. A Sabre carries no less than 1,800 rounds of ammunition. But, the number 3 was ‘Winchester,’ in this context, out of ammunition. The number 3 had spent its bullets against Sekhon’s Gnat without success.
Sekhon took advantage of the moment and jettisoned his drop tanks. This would allow his Gnat to turn even more tightly, and he started to catch up with the Sabre pair.
“At that time, I saw the Gnat momentarily roll his wings level to jettison his under-wing tanks, and then he went into a high ‘G’ turn with renewed vigor to maneuver behind the lead Sabre.
“Within a couple of turns, I could see the distance closing between the two, and before he closed in dangerously, I decided to get into the act. At the same time, I heard an anxious call from the leader asking me to come down and relieve them of this imminent threat,” Baig recalls.
Baig asked his wingman to get into a fighting position and dove down, maneuvering his aircraft to get into the orbit of the fighters below.
In a matter of seconds, he was behind the Gnat, firing from a close range of about 1,000 feet. Sabre’s six machine guns, firing at 120 rounds per second, hit Skehon’s fighter jet.
Though his aircraft got hit, this did not douse Sekhon’s fervor, who called his number 1: “I think I have been hit. Ghuman, come and get them.”
In the heat of the moment, as he took off, Ghuman had taken the tactical decision to climb higher, to give himself height and energy to pursue the diving raiders. But the haze layer over Srinagar at the time stopped him from spotting the combat below.
The accounts of Pakistani and Indian pilots later talked about Sekhon’s hard maneuvering Gnat leveling its wings momentarily after being hit. Then the Gnat pitched down uncontrollably from a shallow height. Sekhon’s canopy was seen to fly off as he seemed to attempt a last-minute ejection, but he was far too close to the ground.
The wreckage of his aircraft was found in a gorge in Badgam with 37 bullet holes in the aircraft frame. He was awarded India’s highest gallantry award- ‘Param Vir Chakra’ – and became the first and, so far, the only IAF personnel to receive the honor.
His citation read: “In the combat that ensued, he almost held his own at tree-top height but was eventually defeated by the sheer weight of numbers. He was killed when his plane crashed.
“Flying Officer Sekhon achieved his goal by sacrificing himself for the defense of Srinagar because the enemy aircraft abandoned the combat scene without pressing their attack against the town and the base.
“Flying Officer Sekhon’s courage, supreme valor, flying talent, and commitment, above and beyond the call of duty, set new standards for Air Force traditions,” the citation added.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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